Stress is one of those “hot button” words that pops up regularly in daily discourse. How often have we heard the expression, “I’m stressed out”? Even some grade school kids have picked up the refrain. A swath of high school and college students pepper their dramatic conversations with the short form, “I’m stressed”.
The moral of the above story cautions us not to talk ourselves into the doledrums of stress. We often give way to our irrational tendencies of over generalizing and “catastrophizing” that distort our perceptions of reality. The outcome of not monitoring the script of our negative self-talk authored by our irrational thinking will be self-induced anxiety accompanied by unhealthy physiological reactions. Even when we accurately perceive the real pressures of life, we can compound the severity of the stress response by not paying attention to our thinking.
To respond prudently to the expected and unexpected distressful events in life we need to practice the habit of accurately observing ourselves and our world. The following quip of Mark Twain warns us to keep a short leach on our imagination in a time of crisis - “I’m an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
What is stress?
The term was coined by Hans Selye, a medical student at the University of Prague in 1926. He used the word, stress, to describe the wear and tear on the body correlated with a person's emotional response to the strains of life. Because he used the analogy of the stress of metals in physics to talk about the body’s response to physical and psychological pressures, the meaning of the word, stress, became confusing.
Today we use the word, stress, as a noun and a verb. Some say, “I’m stressed out”. Others say, “I’m stressing”. Then, we have the use of the noun, “I’m weighed under by too much stress in my life”. We need to sort out the language so that we can clearly label what we are experiencing.
Let’s forget the word, stress, for a moment. Instead, we will simply describe a distressful event and our response to it. The other day I was on the check-out line at the deli. The fellow in front of me was a robust, middle aged man dressed in summer attire. The cashier cheerily said to him, “Good morning. How are you doing?”. He responded with a smile, “You really don’t want to know. It’s a long story.” I checked out fast since I had only one item. On my way out he held the door for me, and I said, “Thanks. Have a good day.” He shot back, “I’ve been trying to do that. Each day means a lot to me now. You know … my whole life change a few week ago when the doctor told me I had diabetes.”
From the outside looking in we see the objective, distressful event of someone finding out the diseased condition of his body. If we put ourselves in his shoes we can approach the subjective, emotional state that he must have been experiencing. The question that eventually and probably arose in his mind was, “How will I handle this?”. The answers to this question will vary according to the mental disposition of the person. We are all in the same boat when it comes to experiencing painful events and the attending upsetting emotions of anxiety, frustration, depression, and other debilitating feelings. But, we differ in the ways that we respond to these events and emotions.
When we use the word, stress, in this exercise, it will refer to our responses to a painful event and/or a demand placed on us such as, to complete a difficult task, to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem, or to manage a chronic medical condition. These events and demands test our mettle. How much pressure can our will of steel and titanium intellect bear? Unlike the fixed strength of metals in physics, that is, how much pressure they can bear before they crack, the strength of our emotional resiliency to psychological strain depends on how we assess distressful events and how we decide to respond to them. We can exercise only limited control over physical events and the behaviors of other people, but we have copious personal resources to meet life’s challenges wisely, prudently and effectively.
We are at a turning point at the moment we tell ourselves that we are experiencing stress. The stress, that is, the strain that we feel, could be good (what some authors call eu-stress) and could yield long term positive consequences, if we respond to it creatively. But, if we fail to use our mental resources to respond effectively to a distressful event, then we label the stress as bad, because the negative emotional and mental consequences that we are experiencing prevent us from functioning normally.
From a common sense philosophical point of view we know that we cannot engineer the world in front of us so that we skip effortlessly down the road of life. Common sense also tells us that we can change a seemingly devastating negative event into a life enhancing opportunity, just as the fellow with diabetes did.
Let’s put these ideas in serial form:
We are first aware of a painful event or of a challenging demand.
Then, we feel physiological and psychological reactions such as, shortness of breath, anxiety, fear, etc.
At this point we are talking to ourselves about the strain that we are experiencing. Now we have to pay attention to what we are saying to ourselves to ferret out our illogical and self-defeating statements.
The kind of resulting physiological and psychological consequences to the painful event depend on how we interpret the event and how we prudently, wisely and courageously respond to the event.
We have to make one more observation and that is about the word, stressor. It is used to label circumstances, occupations, diseases, and in general anything invading the equilibrium of our lives. For example, the occupations of fireman and policeman could be considered stressors. Or a severe illness can be regarded as a stressor. The trouble with the word, stressor, is that it gives the impression of an agent causing these negative emotions in us. So we end up saying things like, “This job (the stressor) stresses me out (the effect or the victim).” Well… if I believe that the job is the cause of my ‘stress’, then I need to get rid of the job to eliminate the stress.
In the case of a disease I definitely want to get rid it. Even when it makes sense to eliminate the stressor, I can prolong the disease, if I do not reduce the accompanying negative emotions. Instead of stressor, then, I will use the following words: the challenges, demands and pressures of life. We will always experience some measure of strain in the sense of pushing ourselves to overcome the obstacles in the way of achieving our ideals, but if we are not thinking clearly we will interpret all the demands of life as making us powerless victims doomed to the dungeons of distress.
To illustrate how to use Vision Circles to reduce stress we will address the issue of someone who complains, “I’m under a great deal of stress at work”.